Bright Eyes - Digital Ash In A Digital Urn

Mike Mantin 24/01/2005

Rating: 4/5

Everyone knows that, when armed with an acoustic guitar and four chords, Conor Oberst can send a shiver down hipsters' spines, and this month's masterpiece I'm Wide Awake It's Morning will surely take this indie crooning into the mainstream. But wait! Lurking behind this incredible honing of his sound is something more adventurous, perhaps less crowd-pleasing. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn swaps Emmylou Harris and Jim James for Dntel from electro-indie outfit The Postal Service, and replaces stripped-down acoustic guitars with squelchy electronics, tinny drum machines and distorted guitars from Nick Zinner, the skinny axe-wielder from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Can he recreate his trademark sensitivity with instruments devoid of soul?

The answer- at least in parts- is a resounding yes. The country warmth may be gone, but- like all Oberst's work under various guises- his sharp wordplay and cracked voice elevate this further from typical 'new Bob Dylan' fare. While the music may be experimental, this is no Kid A-style reinvention. For a start, it actually has tunes, and some of Digital Ash… resembles finely-crafted pop music, such as the indie-with-beats number Hit The Switch, or US Number 2 single Take It Easy. While we could have done without the weird baby noises on the lacklustre Ship In A Bottle, the experimentation provides an interesting new method of conveying Oberst's nightmares and teenage worries, in the same way that previous side-project Desaparecidos coated his political angst in punk guitars and screaming.

This flawed-but-brilliant album's finest moments put a new spin on a tried-and-tested formula, like a good remix album (if such a thing exists). It's actually a lot more human than its computerised nature appears. Some may still be turned off by this new digital approach, but there's an album more suited to purists and newcomers that comes out on the exact same day. This is its darker brother: not as accessible or instantly likeable, but when given time to unfurl, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is more proof that Oberst can do more than strum a clapped-out acoustic guitar to get his message across.